They say never to judge a book by its cover, but man, can a book tempt you with its beautiful design. Sometimes you get burned, but sometimes you find yourself hanging on to every world. Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl falls into the latter. The British novel, released in the states in September 2014, somehow escaped my radar. I stumbled upon it earlier in the week, when I was scouring Overdrive looking for an available audiobook, since my hold queue is, as always, maxed out.
How to Build a Girl's green cover, featuring a girl in Doc Martens and torn tights, instantly caught my eye. A 90's era novel, could it be? Yes, very much yes. The story kicks off in in the early 90s, and is about a fourteen year old girl named Johanna Morrigan, who after an embarrassing moment on local TV, reinvents herself as counter-culture Dolly Wilde (yes, named after Dorothy Wilde), a music critic clad in black, with signature eyeliner, and wanting to experience everything the world has to offer.
Johanna / Dolly has the added issues of being born into a poor family in a manufacturing town that was dealt a raw hand by the Thatcher years. Her father still has dreams of making it in the music business. Her mother is dealing with postpartum depression, and she has four brother, three of whom Johanna usually lends a hand taking care of, when her mother is having "off-days." Luckily for the newly invented Dolly, she knows that despite one's position, the library can help one fill the gaps that poverty creates. There Dolly is able to find the music, her taste, and her voice.
This book is chock full of pop culture references from Bowie to Riot Grrls, Twin Peaks to Bette Midler, Little Women to When Harry Met Sally, and so much more. It speaks to those of us who were teens in the '90s trying to figure out who we were in a world with grunge, pop, indie, and rap as our soundtracks. The decade was indeed a complicated scene - as illustrated by Johanna's cousin who is constantly trying to find herself within the variously scenes: ie goth, raver, or indie kid.
I connected with the main character through our mutual love of music, television, books, and film. And although my own actions, if contained in this story, would be different, I fully understood some of Johanna's motivations to become Dolly Wilde. After so many years of being mocked or ignored, she wants to be admired, loved, desired, and even more so, to be a legend. The early 90's allowed for mysterious personnas and the book is truly about finding oneself and finding one's place in the world, borrowing from so many elements that have come before, plus creating some of your own.
There are some elements in this book that may be off-putting. For example, the honest look at sexuality. Consider this a warning label. Imagine a more serious look at the topic (though still humorous and poignant), then say the film The To Do List in regards to a girl acting just like a boy would at her age. This topic hits you in the face in the first few lines of the book.
There are moments I found myself saying, "No, Dolly! Don't," but she makes her own choices, as we all do. If you give this book a chance, I ask you to keep that in mind. Like so many teens (or adults), Dolly makes mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, but it is how you move forward that demonstrates your strength. Everyone also has their own story.
For those interested in the audiobook, I highly recommend it as it is read by Sherlock's very own Louise Brealey. She nails the various accents, include that of John Kite, a Welsh rocker who plays an instrumental role in Dolly's life. It is quite delightful.
To sum up, despite being about a teen who gets paid to write music reviews (which reminds one of Almost Famous), this story felt real. I contribute this to a very fleshed out world. Caitlin Morgan encapsulated the 90s from real bands, pop culture, fashion, jokes, politics, struggles, and characters. So, for those who say you can't judge a book by its cover - no, you can't, but a very good cover / design can attract the right readers in the most unexpected places. So, here's to a green cover with ripped tights and Doc Martens. You pulled me in to the world of Dolly Wilde and I thank you.